A federal judge in Pennsylvania has signed off on a multi-million dollar settlement of a class action lawsuit for unpaid overtime brought by registered nurses against a number of hospitals affiliated with the Lehigh Valley Hospital and Health Network. The nurses claimed in their lawsuit, which was filed in January 2010, that the Hospitals violated the FLSA and Pennsylvania wage law by paying them on a per-shift basis, failing to compensate them for reporting early or remaining on duty after their shifts ended, and also failing to pay for work performed during lunch periods or while attending training. The $4.5 million settlement provides more than $2.5 million to the more than 2,000 nurses who joined in the lawsuit. This is a significant development for hospitals and other health care providers who pay nurses on a per-shift basis. While Pennsylvania and New Jersey have enacted statutes which prohibit mandatory overtime for nurses, the laws allow nurses to volunteer for extra hours and to work overtime in emergencies or unforeseen circumstances. Nurses are entitled to overtime pay in such circumstances whenever they work more than 40 hours in a week.
The United States Supreme Court recently granted certiorari of a decision by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Symczyk v. Genesis HealthCare Corp., 656 F.3d 189 (3d Cir. 2011), a case that could have a significant impact on employers’ litigation strategy in putative FLSA collective actions. The Third Circuit in Symczyk held that a collective action brought under the FLSA is not rendered moot when the defendant makes a Rule 68 offer of compromise in full satisfaction of the individual claim to a putative representative before the class representative moves for “conditional certification” and before any other plaintiff opts into the action.
Under the FLSA, an employee may file a “collective action” against an employer on behalf of himself and other similarly situated employees. Unlike traditional class actions, however, the FLSA requires that the “similarly situated” employees affirmatively decide to join or opt into the collective action. In Symczyk, the plaintiff filed a putative FLSA collective action, alleging that her employer, Genesis, automatically deducted her pay for meal breaks regardless of whether she performed any compensable work during the break. After answering the Complaint, Genesis served the plaintiff with an offer of judgment for the full amount of her claims, including costs and attorneys’ fees, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68. Genesis then moved to dismiss the Complaint, arguing that the offer to pay her claims in full mooted the claims, depriving the plaintiff of any ongoing personal stake or legally cognizable interest in the litigation, and divesting the court of any jurisdiction over the case.
The district court granted Genesis’ motion, holding that an offer in full satisfaction of a plaintiff’s claims moots those claims. At this point, no other employees had opted into the suit because the plaintiff had not yet sought conditional certification of the collective action. Thus, the case was dismissed. The Third Circuit reversed, holding that “conventional mootness principles do not fit neatly within the representative action paradigm.” Id. at 195. The court compared FLSA collective actions to class actions, in which it is settled law that a defendant cannot moot a putative class action by making an offer of judgment to the named plaintiff before the class is certified and held that there was no rationale for treating the two types of actions differently. Id. at 197-201.
Accordingly, the Third Circuit reversed, holding that “[w]hen Rule 68 morphs into a tool for the strategic curtailment of representative actions, it facilitates an outcome antithetical to the purposes behind [the FLSA].” Id. at 200. The Third Circuit remanded to the district court in order to allow the plaintiff to file a motion for conditional certification, which would then be deemed to “relate back” to the filing of the original complaint and thus preserve the district court’s subject matter jurisdiction. Id. at 201 The Third Circuit noted that if the mootness inquiry were based solely on whether another employee had opted in at the same moment a plaintiff receives a Rule 68 offer of judgment, employers would encounter little or no difficulty in “preventing FLSA plaintiffs from attaining the “representative” status necessary to render an action justiciable.” Id. at 199.
The Third Circuit’s decision in Symczyk cited with approval the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Sandoz v. Cingular Wireless LLC, 553 F.3d 913, 922 (5th Cir. 2008) (holding that, although a Rule 68 Offer of Judgment could theoretically moot a FLSA collective action, the “relation back principle applies to ensure that defendants cannot unilaterally “pick off” collective action representatives and thwart availability of collective actions under the FLSA.”)
However, both the Ninth and Eleventh Circuits have held, to the contrary, that an offer of judgment for the full amount of the named plaintiff’s claims prior to the certification of a class does moot a collective action. See Smith v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., 570 F.3d 1119, 1122-23 (9th Cir. 2009); Cameron-Grant v. Maxim Healthcare Serv., Inc., 347 F.3d 1240 (11th Cir. 2003).
The Supreme Court granted Genesis’ petition for certiorari on June 25, 2012 and stated the question presented as “Whether a case becomes moot, and thus beyond the judicial power of Article III, when the lone plaintiff receives an offer from the defendants to satisfy all of the plaintiff’s claims.” The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will likely have a significant impact on the strategies available to employers to defend against FLSA collective actions and will also resolve a circuit split on this issue.
The Court will hear the case in the term beginning October 2012, and a ruling is expected by the end of the term in June 2013.
On June 29, 2012 the Third Circuit responded for the first time to a question pondered by many employers and courts within its judicial districts: what constitutes a “joint employer” under the FLSA? In a case captioned In re: Enterprise Rent-a-Car Wage & Hour Employment Practices Litigation, the Third Circuit announced a four part, multi-factor test as an answer to this question.
In the Enterprise case, the joint employer question was raised as a result of the filing of a collective action by assistant branch managers at subsidiaries of Enterprise Holdings, Inc., seeking overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). While these assistant managers were employees of Enterprise Holdings’ subsidiaries, they nevertheless sought relief from Enterprise Holdings on the theory that it was a joint employer.
In answering whether Enterprise Holdings falls within the category of “joint employer,” the Third Circuit noted that the definition of “employer” under the FLSA is “the broadest definition that has ever been included in any one act.” Emphasizing that the definition of employer focuses on “control,” the Third Circuit concluded that ultimate control over employees is not necessarily required and even “indirect” control may be sufficient
To determine whether a party is a “joint employer,” and thereby subject to FLSA liability, the Third Circuit adopted the following analysis:
Does the alleged employer have:
- Authority to hire and fire employees;
- Authority to promulgate work rules and assignments, and set conditions of employment, including compensation, benefits, hours and work schedules, including the rate and method of payment;
- Day-to-day supervision, including employee discipline; and
- Control of employee records, including payroll, insurance, taxes, and the like.
The Third Circuit emphasized that the factors identified do not constitute an exhaustive list and should not be “blindly applied.” Rather, under the Third Circuit’s guidance, courts are to look to the “total employment situation” and “economic realities of the work relationship.”
How did Enterprise Holdings, the sole stockholder of thirty-eight domestic subsidiaries, avoid the label of “joint employer”? Even despite finding that a three-member board of directors for each subsidiary consisted of the same people who sat on Enterprise Holding’s three-member board, the Third Circuit focused on other key facts in support of its decision: (i) Enterprise Holdings had no authority to hire or fire assistant managers; (ii) Enterprise Holdings had no authority to promulgate work rules or assignments; (iii) Enterprise Holdings had no authority to set compensation benefits, schedules, or rates or methods of payment; (iv) Enterprise Holdings was not involved in employee supervision or employee discipline; and (v) Enterprise Holdings did not exercise or maintain any control over employee records. Among these factors, the Third Circuit emphasized that Enterprise Holdings only “suggested” various Human Resources and salary policies and that the adoption of such suggestions was not mandatory, rendering the parent company more akin to a third-party consultant.
In light of this decision, employers and, in particular, parent corporations, should be aware of the fact that courts within the Third Circuit (Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) will apply the “Enterprise” test going forward. Notwithstanding, while the test has been articulated, the analysis remains highly fact intensive and courts are by no means limited to consideration of the factors identified in the Enterprise decision. Employers unsure of their FLSA joint employer status should contact their labor and employment counsel.
The Supreme Court recently handed down a decision clarifying the contours of the “outside sales” exemption to the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and settled a split between the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second and Ninth Circuits. The Court rejected the attempt by the Department of Labor (“DOL”) to reverse the longstanding industry practice of classifying pharmaceutical sales representatives as exempt employees based on its finding that the DOL had never suggested that the industry practice was improper and had never taken legal action to stop the practice. The Court observed that to reverse the longstanding practice in that circumstance would be an improper “unfair surprise” to the industry.
In Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., two pharmaceutical representatives claimed that their employer failed to pay them overtime wages based on an improper classification as exempt outside sales employees. The representatives’ work consisted mainly of visiting doctors’ offices and encouraging them to prescribe SmithKline drugs. Each week, the employees worked about 40 hours calling on physicians, and spent another 10 to 20 hours on other miscellaneous tasks. Although the employees were well-compensated, they were not paid overtime wages for hours they worked in excess of 40 hours per week.
The Supreme Court considered whether these employees were “employed . . . in the capacity of outside salesman” and therefore exempt from overtime wages under the FLSA. Congress did not define the term “outside salesman” but delegated that authority to the DOL by regulation. The statute nevertheless provides that “‘sale’ or ‘sell’ includes any sale, exchange, contract to sell, consignment for sale, shipment for sale, or other disposition.”
In reaching its decision, the Court first determined that the DOL’s interpretation of the statute was not entitled to deference because it had never been formally promulgated as a regulation. Instead, after years of silence, the DOL presented its interpretation in amicus briefs filed in related litigation in the Second and Ninth Circuits, and then presented a completely different interpretation in its submission to the Supreme Court in the Christopher appeal.
Having determined that there was no basis to defer to the Agency’s interpretation, the Court used the traditional tools of statutory interpretation to determine whether the pharmaceutical representatives were exempt outside salespersons. Under that analysis, the Court found that pharmaceutical representatives make sales for purposes of the FLSA, and therefore are exempt, even though they do not technically “sell” anything to the physicians they visit, because the “other disposition” catchall category in the statute’s definition of “sale” should be understood to include the sales representatives’ practice of obtaining nonbinding commitments from physicians to prescribe the employer’s drugs. The Court was also convinced that pharmaceutical sales representatives are “outside salespersons” under the statute because they act like salespersons, are paid like salespersons, and receive training to close sales like salespersons.
A cautionary note: this Supreme Court decision is limited to pharmaceutical industry representatives only. While the “outside sales” exemption may continue to be litigated, this decision has provided much guidance on a previously undefined term under the FLSA. And, of course, the decision has no impact on state wage and hour laws that do not track the FLSA.
San Francisco partner Cheryl Orr and counsel Fey Epling wrote an article for The Recorder on recent trends that indicate a shift in the landscape of employer class actions, especially in the wake of Brinker Restaurant v. Superior Court.
Cheryl and Fey note that “employers across America are breathing a collective sigh of relief at the California Supreme Court’s ruling,” in Brinker, particularly its holding that “an employer satisfies its duties by providing and permitting breaks, as opposed to ensuring that their employees take them.” This is, however, “just the latest blow to putative class actions” they have observed as management-side class action defense practitioners.
The article outlines other factors, such as, a shift in the nature of filings, the choice of venue, the matter of class certification and a “greater sense of urgency for resolution” of litigation, that have all resulted in “a fairly dramatic shift in the class action landscape.”
To read the entire article, click here.